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WJA 2022: Gillian Ruddy Wilcox

Gillian Ruddy WilcoxACLU of Missouri

Police misconduct. LGBTQ+ rights. Voting rights violations. Book bans. Not to mention COVID-19.

Calling the last few years ‘busy’ for Gillian Ruddy Wilcox and her fellow defenders of civil liberties at the ACLU of Missouri doesn’t come close to capturing the pace of recent events amid which, as is usually the case, the ACLU found itself out front.

The native of rural southern Minnesota wouldn’t have it any other way.

“It’s my dream job,” said Wilcox, the organization’s Kansas City-based deputy director for litigation. “I couldn’t think of a better way to be a public interest lawyer than to get to do work on systemic change — but still get that connection with clients, helping individuals.”

Public service came naturally for Wilcox, whose mother was a public-school teacher and father a city manager. Later, while in high school in small-town Wisconsin, she found herself wondering about friends who would “fall through the cracks,” winding up in rehab, jail, foster care — or simply fading away, sight unseen.

“A kid would get in trouble and would get sent away. You never knew exactly where they went — and sometimes they never came back,” Wilcox said. “That just struck me as problematic.”

Armed with an undergraduate degree in criminology and Spanish from the University of Minnesota-Duluth, Wilcox moved to Des Moines, Iowa, where her parents had relocated when she was in college, to attend law school at Drake University — but only after a 4-year detour as a Minneapolis bartender and riverboat deckhand.

Drake is also where she met her husband Andrew, now a partner at Polsinelli. She spent a year as a judicial law clerk in Minnesota before the couple settled in Kansas City, where Wilcox started out as a staff attorney for Legal Aid of Western Missouri, with a focus on housing.

After four years with Legal Aid, Wilcox then clerked for Judge Karen King Mitchell of the Missouri Court of Appeals, Western District. She joined the ACLU in 2014 as a staff attorney, followed by promotions to senior staff attorney and, since September 2021, in her current role.

In its nomination letter, the Association for Women Lawyers of Greater Kansas City called Wilcox “an incredible public servant” who has “spent her entire legal career for nearly 15 years serving her community in one way or another.”

Wilcox counts the ACLU’s successful challenge to Missouri’s same-sex marriage ban among her professional highlights, an auspicious start to a position where she often finds herself, in the words of “Hamilton” creator Lin-Manuel Miranda, in “The Room Where It Happens.”

“If I wasn’t doing this work, I would have a harder time wrapping my head around everything going on in the world,” said the mother of two, describing how working in a field where burnout isn’t uncommon actually prevents her from getting burned out.

“I like being a lawyer, and I like practicing the law. So why not do so in an area that reduces my stress outside of my work life by spending my working hours tackling some of society’s biggest problems?”

Women's Justice Awards 2022